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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Ward or Free Women?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ward or Free Women?

(HT: Drudge Report) An employee of an elementary school in North Carolina to a preschool girl that her homemade meal wasn’t healthy enough and replaced that meal with one from the school cafeteria (“Food police reject preschooler's homemade lunch... in favour of chicken nuggets”). The Department of Health and Human Services determines what is healthy and requires students to eat put it on their plates. The girl’s incensed mother responded,
What got me so mad is, number one, don’t tell my kid I’m not packing her lunch box properly…I pack her lunchbox according to what she eats. It always consists of a fruit. It never consists of a vegetable. She eats vegetables at home because I have to watch her because she doesn’t really care for vegetables. 
You can lead a girl to vegetables but you can’t make her eat. She ate the chicken nuggets on the school provided plate but nothing else. The mother was charges $1.25 for the lunch.

Two winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics suggest two problems with the school’s action. The minor issue was that the school action almost necessarily reduced the wellbeing of the girl. Hayek argues that government action lacks local knowledge, in this case the girl’s eating habits, which is needed for an efficient decision.

The bigger issue is the role that citizens should give the state. Milton Friedman addresses this issue by criticizing a much quoted statement by President Kennedy. Upon reading Friedman’s critique, I first disagreed, but on subsequent readings, I have flip-flopped and completely and whole-heartedly agree with it. The following quote is from the introduction to Milton Friedman's 1962 book "Capitalism and Freedom".

In a much quoted passage in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic "what your country can do for you" implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man's belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, "what you can do for your 'country" implies the government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary.

To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.
The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather "What can I and my compatriots do through government" to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom?
And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?
Freedom is a rare and delicate plant. Our minds tell us, and history confirms, that the great threat to freedom is the concentration of power. Government is necessary to preserve our freedom, it is an instrument through which we can exercise our freedom; yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom. Even though the men who wield this power initially be of good will and even though they be not corrupted by the power they exercise, the power will both attract and form men of a different stamp.
The girl and her mother were no longer free women but wards of the state.


  1. Thanks for the work you do here, and elsewhere. Milton Friedman is a national treasure. Thank heavens we still have his words, his vision, in our varied media. So many in this grim world have lost their capacity to learn, are ineducable, have been brainwashed away from truth, and beauty, and even love. Those of us who know some semblance of truth, historical truth,, must keep trying though. What choice do we have?

  2. Your comment is appreciated. Sadly, I my experience confirms many of your conclusions about freedom. The biggest problem I face in the classroom is apathy, a simple lack of appreciation for freedom.